Tigers Are Not Afraid opens with the grim reality of Mexico since the start of the 2006 drug war before it seamlessly transitions into a classroom discussing fairy tales. While we hear our protagonist Estrella (Paola Lara) tell a story of a prince and a tiger, the guns start blaring. The students drop to the floor and the fairy tale we know is shattered while writer and director Issa López builds us another one.
A horror-fantasy about five children trying to survive the cartel violence of the Huascas in Mexico, Tigers Are Not Afraid evokes both sadness and triumph, fear and perseverance. Haunted by her mother, 10-year old Estrella rallies the young boys she meets to survive using fantasy as their escape. When Shine (Juan Ramón López) comes into Estrella’s home, stealing from her to provide for the other young boys orphaned by the violence, reality hits her. After the encounter, Estrella joins them, fleeing the darkness that has filled her home since mother was taken by the cartel. Armed with three wishes, we see a monkey’s paw warp their path and her hope.
Having stolen the property of one of the Huascas, Shine, the boys, and Estrella go on a dark adventure, and one that is not tamed by the expectations of an audience. While we’re used to children surviving films, López does not shield us from the violence, the death, or the abduction that the orphaned experience. These are their lives, and we will see it. Tigers Are Not Afraid’s violence shakes you. While López uses fantasy to tell this story, she balances it with reality, never allowing the audience to detach from a narrative set to highlight the pain of her country and the young who live in it.
But through it all, López offers up the power of fantasy, of fiction, and of fairy tales. As the children tell stories to each other, reimagine events, and cope with their trauma, we’re shown how they use fantasy to escape. When they forget how to be princes, princesses, and ultimately children, their stories ground them and pull them back. They serve as their armor to protect them from a world that will forget them. This is powerful.
The cartel subgenre is one that is filled with action and stereotypes, highlighted by American-made films like this year’s Miss Bala, in which a story of Mexico’s cartel violence is told by women unconnected to it. But here, the children are the subject. Their identities and their struggle are the focus of this film and while the cartel’s brutality deals death. While she shows the cost of violence, López also offers hope.
In addition to a script that pulls you in and rips open your heart, the children’s acting is superb. As Shine, López delivers a performance more emotive and powerful than the adults I have seen in theaters this year. Shine’s story is heartbreaking and López brings life to him with a defiance and a pain I challenge any adult in the business to replicate. In addition, Lara’s performance as Estrella is vulnerable and commanding. You root for her, want to protect her, and are ultimately proud of her by the film’s end. The other children offer up a solid ensemble performance, especially young Morrito and his stuffed tiger.
In the film’s darkness, López uses fantasy and elements of traditional Japanese horror to wonder a world where the supernatural is real. From snakes and miniature dragon creatures to the ghostly figures’ presentation and quick movements, her execution of these elements rounds out Tigers Are Not Afraid and solidify the power of using genre to tell important stories. While some have noted that this balance parallel’s Guillermo del Toro’s iconic style, namely Pan’s Labyrinth, López is her own artist who has solidly created her own space alongside the maestro and not in his shadow.
There is something to be said for the ability of Mexican directors and writers to use fantasy and horror in this way to depict the trauma of their own lives and the histories they live in. It’s something that I see my own life in as a Mexican American raised on folktales of darkness and hope. This is clear in how López uses death. While it scares Estrella at first, she becomes accustomed to it and welcomes the ghosts into her life. She works with them, listens to them, and lets them guide her.
Overall, Tigers Are Not Afraid is not only the best genre film I’ve seen all year but the best film in general. It’s imaginative, it hits like a truck, and it heals like sábila from your abuela’s backyard. While the fates of those in the film may be bleak, López’s message is not.
Tigers have fangs to break bones, they’re hunters, they never forget, and they are not afraid. The power in this film comes from this idea, said in the opening, and repeated in both the middle and end, “Tigers are not afraid.” They survive. This is the heart of the film, one that beats with fantasy and showcases the resiliency of a Mexican spirit that refuses to be crushed. For all the pain the tiger has gone through, it becomes free, “a king of a f***ed up land.” After watching Tigers Are Not Afraid, so shall we.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is available in select theaters now and is available to stream on Shudder.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Tigers Are Not Afraid is not only the best genre film I’ve seen all year but the best film in general. It’s imaginative, it hits like a truck, and it heals like sábila from your abuela’s backyard. While the fates of those in the film may be bleak, López’s message is not.